Let’s clear the air!

Todd Brennan -
Safety First
- 22 Jun 2007 ( #315 )
4 min read
Todd Brennan is the founder and owner of Forkpro Australia. A former chairman of the Australian Industrial Truck Engineering Committee, Brennan aims to "fill the forklift safety gap" with Forkpro's forklift training courses. Together with his team, he has assisted tertiary institutions, including the Melbourne-based Monash University Accident Research Centre's forklift safety project.
It's a busy but average Friday afternoon. Quite a large shipment has just been received and it all has to be put away before anyone goes home. It is a small and somewhat overgrown warehouse. The six forklifts are not the latest internal combustion engine models but they do the job, run well and don't appear to have excessive emissions. A few hours go by and some of the workers feel a bit wheezy from the exhaust gases so they go outside for a breather - a few times. Two hours later and one worker collapses and an ambulance is called. The rest is history.

Often our safety discussions centre around forklift operation and behavioural aspects. However, in this column, I would like to briefly touch on a subject that has resulted in a number of fatalities and various workplace illnesses - exhaust gas emissions.

Within Australia, the forklift market has rapidly moved towards battery electric equipment to the point now it's almost 50/50 (battery/internal combustion (IC) engine). This is primarily due to the large growth in the warehouse equipment market.

In the traditional market, however, battery forklifts still only make up about 10%. Overall, of the estimated 400,000 forklifts in workplaces around Australia, the split is not 50/50. IC forklifts well outweigh battery in the total 'carpark' due to the long lifespan of many forklifts.

Many overseas markets have now adopted tough emission control requirements, much of this driven by environmental concerns. These markets also tend to have different fuel preferences. In Europe, for example, diesel has been the predominant fuel type. For IC engine forklifts in Australia, Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) has been the fuel of choice and this is predominantly propane, although blends do vary.

So what's my point?

Internal combustion engines produce various gas emissions. Gasoline engines are usually converted to LPG for various reasons, including cleaner combustion. It is widely known that LPG can potentially provide much cleaner emissions than straight petrol alternatives as can its lesser accepted cousin, compressed natural gas (CNG) - however, I must emphasise the word 'potentially'.

Until recently, LPG fuel delivery systems have primarily been basic vacuum type systems. They are low cost, simple to maintain, relatively effective and easily adjusted. They are also far from 'set and forget'! The combustion process is affected by factors such as gas blend, temperatures and maintenance factors, to name a few. The only real way to understand the outputs is to measure them.

Recently, our company has undertaken emissions testing on a variety of forklifts. To do this, we developed a test rig to analyse SO2, H2s, NO, NO2, O2 and CO2 in operation. The results in some cases were frightening. Forklifts we were assured were in good running order failed the tests, but this could not be detected from normal operations.

Additionally, there seems to be a widely accepted test method that determines a specific gas output at 'wide open throttle' (WOT). However, this tends to overlook the fact that when held WOT for a period, increased combustion temperature tends to burn the fuel more effectively (especially if a catalytic converter is fitted) and the nasty gases such as CO2 fall rapidly. Of course, this is not realistic. Forklifts tend to be stop-start and, in many cases, struggle to reach optimum operating temperature - a key for effective combustion.

The bottom line is that internal combustion engines emit harmful gases. It is important to understand how much they emit and how open or well ventilated the work area is. People more qualified than I will tell you about the effects of all the various gases and the particulates within, but what is a safe level? Clearly, this is determined by the concentration within the atmosphere, not what comes out the exhaust pipe. The NOHSC has published recommended exposure levels.

The worst case scenario can be death and there have been cases within Australia. However, the lesser known health effects must also be considered. A switch to battery electric forklifts is not the solution for everyone, and these vehicles clearly have their hazards.

If you are using internal combustion engine forklifts in your work area, make sure they are maintained regularly and emissions confirmed under normal operating conditions. Also, regularly check the concentrations within the work area as this is really the key to preventing overexposure.

Yes, it probably won't be long before forklifts are sent out to the footpath with all the other smokers. At least one Australian state authority is evaluating annual emission verification and there have been discussions within the Federal Government over 'non-road' equipment emissions, while at the source, manufacturers dice with self-regulation.

The message to all users is undeniable: No matter what fuel type you use, just because you can't smell the gas does not mean you are in the clear!
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BITA supports children’s charity Safety First - 19 Jul 2007 (#319) British Industrial Truck Association members have supported The Sick Children's Trust for the second consecutive year with funds raised from a charity raffle at BITA's summer ball in Stratford-upon-Avon.
It’s all good
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It’s all good Safety First - 10 May 2007 (#309) If you have trained a forklift operator or two in your time you can probably relate to the experience of seeing the emotional state of some trainees when they show up for training sessions. Often displaying signs ranging from utter apathy to immobilising fear, their state is usually due to the fact that they have been sent, usually against their will ...
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